(Editor’s Note: The 10th stop on our year-long Catfish Hotspots tour takes us back to the Tenn-Tom Waterway, on the upper end between Pickwick and Bay Springs lakes, with the King of Catfishing — Phil King).
Over the last 20 years, national catfishing tournaments have slowly but surely made their way forward into the limelight of the mainstream outdoors. Less about flair and showmanship than the big bass trails, catfish anglers are a breed apart.
One of the most recognizable names and faces in the catfish tournament world is Phil King of Corinth.
King has been fishing for catfish in and around the Tennessee River for the past 36 years and has guest starred on countless TV shows and been featured in magazine articles about fishing for catfish.
In his tournament exploits, King and his Cabela’s catfishing team caught the first catfish to weigh over 100 pounds in a modern day catfish tournament — a 103-pound blue catfish from the Mississippi River in 2007.
In his spare time, King guides for catfish in the waters around his home in Corinth. One of his favorite locales is the upper Tenn-Tom Waterway where he can scoot down U.S. Highway 72 from Corinth and be in the water in less than 20 minutes. King reports that the upper Tenn-Tom is a great place to tangle with trophy flatheads and feisty blue cats.
This month, the King of Catfishing was happy to share 10 of his best fishing spots on the upper Tenn-Tom Waterway.
1. Burnsville Bridge
GPS: N 34 49.604 / W 88 18.315
After launching the boat at the Burnsville City Ramp, King motors his 21-foot Sea Ark catfish boat less than a quarter mile downstream to start fishing from the Burnsville Bridge (Highway 72), working downstream.
“What you’ve got here for flatheads, you’ve got the manmade revetment coming down to the base of the manmade channel and those flatheads like to lay up right where the rock and mud meet,” said King. “As you go down through here with your depth finder if you have side scan on it, you can see little indentions, which are current breaks and that’s what these big flatheads like.
“In the waterway system, with the current flowing in either direction, they will tuck behind those current breaks and sit there and wait on an opportunity for bait fish to come by. We anchor up and chunk baits out and draw the fish to us.”
During October when water temperatures start dropping to their fall norms, King knows catfish become very active. One of his favorite methods to locate and catch them is to troll along the revetment bank edges, using either cut baits or artificial crankbaits.
“This stretch is a great trolling run,” said King. “Additionally, you could anchor up on these points that jut in and out and fish just the current breaks. If you wanted to troll cut bait or pull crankbaits down this ledge, this manmade channel edge is a great spot from here down. You could troll probably a half-mile stretch right here. If you get two or three bites in the same general area, it might be worth coming back and anchoring up.”
2. Power Transmission Hole
GPS: N 34 49.428/ W 88 18.716
King’s Hotspot No. 2 is located south/southwest of the Burnsville Bridge, and, like a lot of structure spots on the Tenn-Tom, it is regularly affected by the commercial barge traffic that uses the waterway on a daily basis. It’s a bend in the river that gets regularly scoured out by the heavy boats headed upstream.
“This spot is the head of a hole going south on the waterway,” said King. “Right here, barges on the river will start to try to make this right bend. Going southbound, when he turns that blade that directs the props on the barge, they tend to blow out a deeper groove in the river on the right side.
“This particular spot here drops off about 18 feet. What that does, it makes a place for a catfish to run, just like we drive on the four lanes on the interstates on our highways, this is an interstate for a catfish.”
King explained that blues, channel catfish and flatfish all relate to this location, but in different ways, depending on the time of day and prevailing currents.
“Blue catfish will run that deepest groove and they’ll stay in that deepest groove during the daylight hours,” he said. “Flatheads will move out here periodically, but will stay more up against the shallower edge where the rip-rap manmade revetment rock hits the mud.
“Right out here in the channel, this would be a good place to target channel cats in 18-20 feet of water using cut bait.”
3. Creek Spillways
GPS: N 34 48.773 / W 88 18.973
One of the benefits of following the Catfish Hotspot Series is at the end of the year, the reader will wind up with 120 proven GPS locations to catch catfish. King uses Hotspot No. 3 as an example, but states that he could add another 120 spots just by visibly moving down the entire stretch of the Tenn-Tom and making notes of creek spillways. All of them fish similarly, although some will be better than others.
“There are a lot of these spillways scattered up and down the waterway and it’s an easy visual fishing spot,” said King. “You really don’t have to have a GPS coordinate to find them. Any time you have a 2- to 3-inch rain, you’re going to have a lot of silt and mud and bugs and insects and worms washing into the waterway, it’s an excellent place to anchor up and catch catfish.”
Fishing washouts where rain is bringing in food attracts all kinds of fish, but especially channel catfish. King said anyone looking for a mess of eating sized channels in the 3- to 5-pound range can easily make a day of fishing nothing but creek spillways.
“Either side of where the water’s gushing out will draw those channel cats in there,” he said. “You can probably catch anywhere to two to five fish on either side of it.
“It’s a fish-30-minutes kind of spot, catching the active fish and moving on to the next one or moving to the lower side and catch three to five more and just keep moving.”
4. Berea Creek Spillway
GPS: N 34 47.714 / W 88 19.190
King had an interesting tale of fishing catfish tournaments on the Tenn-Tom involving Hotspot No. 4.
“When catfish tournaments first got started, I fished two years of the Tombigbee Championship and won it both years,” said King. “The first year, nobody wanted to fish with me because I wasn’t catching any fish of any size. I was fishing these spillways and catching channel cats in the 2- to 5-pound range.
“The tournament guaranteed a $500 payback so I figured there’d be local people fishing so I sent my money in early. I start pre-fishing — catching 12- to15-pound bag limits for seven fish. So I catch my seven fish limit right at this spot and I drive all the way to Aberdeen to weigh in my fish because you could fish the waterway anywhere you wanted to, you just had to be at Aberdeen to weigh in at a certain time. I get down there. Nobody’s entered the tournament but Phil King.”
He said he tried to let the tournament promoters off the hook.
“The tournament director said ‘Oh, no, we guaranteed this pot; we’ve got to pay you,’” King said. “I told him, “‘No, you don’t. I understand. Nobody showed up, you don’t owe me anything. I’ll just go back home and go fishing,” said King.
In the end, the director insisted and King went home with $500 for 15 pounds of catfish that he caught from the Berea Creek Spillway.
5. No-Name Creek
GPS: N 34 47.231/ W88 19.269
Like the last two spots on the list, Hotspot No. 5 is a creek spillway that flows into the Tenn-Tom Waterway. King claims they all hold fish because of fresh oxygenated water coming in and the propensity for holding baitfish and higher oxygen content around the area.
As far as boat positioning to take advantage, King stresses it’s important to be able to read the hotspots within the hotspot.
“I like to get out on the edge of the manmade revetment, out in the Tombigbee channel, and I’d anchor up on each side, the upper and lower side of the mouth of the creek spillway,” he said. “Just fan cast around the boat. Throw two or three right where the current’s coming out. Throw one wide out in the channel where it’s probably 16 to18 feet deep. As soon as the fish start telling you where they’re at, just keep casting more poles in that specific area or specific water depth.”
His recommended baits were to match the hatch, with native baitfish at the top of the list.
“In Mississippi, you’re legal to use cut bream, as long as they’re caught on a pole first,” he said. “Skipjack is a river herring that’s in the Tennessee River that joins the Tombigbee. You can catch those too, cut them up. You can cut smaller baits for channel cats. For bigger fish, you want to use half a skipjack or big chunk so you can vary your size bait depending on what size fish are in the area. Other good baits are night crawlers and shad guts.”
6. Divide Cut Area
GPS: N 34 46.609 / W 88 19.555
Trolling for catfish is a somewhat novel approach that is gaining widespread popularity across the country. Most trollers slow troll cut bait on a slinky weighted rig that crawls over the bottom. King’s favorite is to troll crankbaits for flathead catfish. It’s a tactic that he picked up fishing tournament trails and has refined over the years.
“You want a deep-diving bait, one that will dive down to about 10 to 12 feet and you’d hover those right down the edge of the revetment bank,” King said. “The flatheads will be active until the water gets down to around the 48- to 50-degree range so you can troll crankbaits up and down the bank.”
King describes Hotspot No. 6 as a good trolling area.
The GPS mark is a place mark for the run. He trolls with the current then turns around and trolls back against it, working both sides of the channel edge.
“You’ll have to let the fish tell you which way they want to bite,” King said. “Some days they’ll bite better going with the current, some days they’ll want the crankbait pulled into the current. That’s my flathead trolling tip.”
King uses heavy action bait cast rods spooled with 80-pound braid for his trolling setups. He ties that off with a 30-pound monofilament leader, using an 80-pound crane swivel to connect the two.
7. Divide Cut Bend
GPS: N 34 45.885 / W 88 19.852
Like most bodies of water in Mississippi, water levels will fluctuate in the Tenn-Tom Waterway, usually dictated by the time of year and prevailing rainfall. Because this stretch of the Tenn-Tom is basically channel anyway, he consults the water levels to determine where the deepest holes are located. Deep holes are a great place to find big blue catfish.
Hotspot No. 7 is one of those holes.
“The October pool would be down to about 410, in the 408 to 410 range,” he said. “The summer pool would be 414 so you’d have anywhere from 4-6 feet more water here. It would range anywhere from 16 to 21 feet right here at the head of this hole. Again, that’s another interstate for those big blue cats, especially, to travel. The blue cats love the deepest holes they can find.”
Fishing a long deep stretch of water is a great place to employ what King refers to as a Santee-Cooper rig. It’s basically a slinky weight that anchors a float rig to the bottom. The weight is designed not to hang up, riding over the top of structure, while the float keeps the hook off the bottom.
“You can slow troll around this bend in the deep groove and target blue channel catfish,” King said. “Another unique thing about this part of the bend is this big creek over here dumping in, so you’re going to have some wood that will waterlog and eventually wash out in these deeper areas and settle. Those catfish like those wood structures.”
8. Holcutt Stretch
GPS: N 34 44.157 / W 88 18.982
Hotspot No. 8 is a do-it-all location that is prime for trolling either cut baits or crankbaits. It consists of a two-mile stretch of water with some high bottom relief consisting of rocks and sunken wood.
King targets the edges for flatheads and the deep cuts for blues and channels.
“This is a good long straightaway,” he said “It’s over two miles of water where you can troll crankbaits, cut bait and cut bream. For flatheads, you can mix that combination up and let the fish tell you whether they want the bream or the cut bait. Long strips of cut bait like skipjack, where it will wave and swim in the wate,r is an excellent bait to troll along with your crank baits. You can also pick up some nice channel cat on those strips of cut bait, as well. They love them.”
9. Southern Railroad Bridge
GPS: N 34 50.146 / W 88 17.820
The last fishing spot on the list is back upstream from the landing.
If King is working a number of the listed hotspots or fishing a tournament on this stretch of water, it’s a good “last cast” type of location. He will use similar tactics at both the railroad bridge and the Burnsville Bridge listed in Hotspot No. 2. He said bridges of any sort provide two things all catfish love — shade and cover.
“This particular bridge will provide shade on sunny days,” said King. “Our water will clear up to a clear green in the fall and you can see down approximately 6 feet on some days when the water’s clear and settles up. A bridge provides protection from the sunlight for the fish so, as the sun comes up, there is always shade around a bridge.
King prefers to anchor where he can fan cast to a variety of depths, always making sure he connects with the inevitable scour hole that is formed at the base of any bridge piling with decent circumference. The scour hole provides depth and a current break and is usually good for a decent-sized cat or two.
“The water is about 17 feet deep right here and it’s at the lower end of a bend in the canal here so it’ll be even a little deeper than the surrounding areas,” said King. “Fishing bridges is not an art. It’s kind of like the creek spillways we talked about earlier.
“Bridges just seem like natural fish hangouts with the pylons and shade cover. Get in there, give them about 30 minutes and move on.”
10. Burnsville City Ramp
GPS: N 34 49.730 / W 88 18.154
About the only game in town, as far as launching boats is concerned, is the Burnsville City Ramp. King says it’s a good one, well protected by both security and lighting, and it’s convenient from places north like Memphis, and Corinth.
“This ramp is approximately eight miles to the mouth where the Tenn-Tom Waterway meets Pickwick Lake, or, the other way, you can travel all the way to Bay Springs Lake,” said King. “This is in the city limits so police patrol this area and its well lit up and secure.”
Directions: Traveling east on U.S. Highway 72, from Memphis through Corinth, continue on 72 to Burnsville (about 15 miles), and approximately a quarter-mile before the Tenn-Tom Waterway bridge, turn left on Frontage Road and an immediate right to parallel Highway 72, and follow Frontage Road to the boat ramp.
You can contact Phil King Guide Service by calling 662-286-8644. Leave a voicemail if needed.
E-mail email@example.com (The 103 stands for his 103- pounder).
Visit www.h2ow.com/catfish/ for recipes on how to cook southern fried catfish and a hush puppy recipe you won’t regret trying.